South Africa sentences Rhino smuggler

A South African court on Friday sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for his part in a syndicate that smuggled dozens of rhino horns out of the country, the stiffest sentence ever handed down for such a crime in South Africa.Government ministers praised the court for sending a strong message that rhino horn smuggling would not be tolerated.

South Africa, home to about 90% of Africa's rhinoceroses, has faced an alarming rise in poaching with 488 of the animals illegally killed this year by Oct. 30, compared with 13 in 2007. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 2.4% of South Africa's rhinos were poached last year, with the rate increasing this year, posing a serious threat of extinction to rhinos.

The Laos-based syndicate, Xaysavang, exploited South Africa's laws that allow hunters to kill one rhino a year with a permit to illegally exported dozens of rhino horns. Lemtongthai confessed to organizing the bogus rhino hunts for Xaysavang to obtain horns to trade on the international black market and pleaded guilty to 59 charges of fraud and violations of customs, excise and environmental laws.